Cultural Connection

Posted on May 1, 2013 :: Cover Story
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

Good communication plays an integral role in business success. But what if more than a third of your workforce doesn’t speak English?

That’s the situation the McCain Foods plant in Appleton found itself in a few years ago. With about 40 percent of its workforce having a main language other than English, McCain’s leaders knew they needed to make some changes to help all workers reach their full potential and help the maker of frozen appetizers, such as jalapeño poppers, be more productive.

McCain partnered with Fox Valley Technical College to offer onsite English Language Learners (ELL) programs to its employees, created language teams to improve communication among workers generally and sent 12 managers to an FVTC class to learn basic Hmong language and culture.

“We strive to be as inclusive as possible with our workforce. We embrace the diversity of our workforce and look at it as a strength, a way that brings in new ideas and helps us grow,” says Ben Waddell, plant manager of McCain Foods in Appleton.

Somkuan Hill, an employee of McCain for more than 15 years, participated in a course about two years ago designed to improve her English skills. “I was so appreciative and it really helped me a lot. I would go to class before my work shift and was able to really improve my English, which helped me a lot at work and outside of my job,” says Hill, who is Hmong. “I knew some English before the class, but it really helped me so I could communicate better with the people around me.”

McCain Foods isn’t the only area manufacturer with a diverse workforce. As the region’s population diversifies with people who not only speak Hmong, but also Spanish and other languages, manufacturers are realizing they need to take steps to make sure those employees aren’t left behind.

Onsite Classes

McCain Foods is one of the trailblazers in manufacturing when it comes to language programs. In addition to the onsite English classes, the company also created language teams on which a bilingual employee serves as a bridge between the non-English speakers and the rest of the staff, Waddell says. The HR department also has employees fluent in both English and Spanish.

“Our training process is very intensive and employees need to show us they know what to do. It’s a four-step process and a lot of it is modeling, so there’s not a lot of written material. So that’s why it’s important to have some of those basic language skills down, so employees can understand what to do,” Waddell says.

Brian Skelton, an ELL instructor at FVTC, worked with McCain to develop onsite ELL programs. The courses are offered free to employees and go beyond the basic instruction they may receive during the training process.

Skelton says that beyond the initial challenge that there isn’t a common second language, everyone also is at a different skill level. “The only real common denominator is what shift they work,” he says. “We make sure they have a good base and then get job-specific. We developed something we call the Factory 500 – 500 basic words that all employees in a manufacturing setting should know.”

Skelton is impressed with McCain’s commitment to providing language programs to employees. “They realize how important the language is. You need to know how to ask for a day off or you may need it for forklift training,” he says. “McCain’s program started off as a semester, but it went for two years.”

Another communication hurdle in the manufacturing sector is the setting itself. With many employees wearing ear plugs and safety goggles – plus a lot of noise – the communication process can get complicated, Skelton says. “It’s just another hurdle to deal with,” he says.

By offering ELL programs right at work, the classes are more convenient for the non-English speakers, says Sandra Huenink, dean of basic education at Moraine Park Technical College. There’s more incentive for employees to learn English in their workplace since they don’t have to figure out where to go to get the help they need, or worry as much about making time for it in their schedule. Many classes are offered before, during or after shifts, Huenink says.

With the counties served by MPTC – such as Fond du Lac, Washington and Dodge – being closer to Milwaukee, which has a large Hispanic population, many manufacturers there are looking for assistance. Huenink says that while some employees may speak a little English, they could benefit themselves and their employers by having a better understanding of the language.

Like FVTC, MPTC works with manufacturers on developing onsite ELL classes to fit their needs. With safety being a major issue for most manufacturers, Huenink says that’s often a focal point in ELL classes.

“Our training is very customized. Since safety is so important, we had one company that wanted us to teach English in the context of the safety manual,” she says. “We did the basic English skills, which some already have, but then focused more on safety, teaching the different phrases and jargon that employees need to know.”

MPTC’s Huenink says manufacturers realize the investment in ELL programs pays off because it makes more productive employees.

“Think about the waste that might happen if someone doesn’t understand the language and then maybe doesn’t ‘get’ all of the instructions,” she says. “The best thing about the onsite ELL programs is that employees can walk right out of the classroom and put what they just learned to work in their interactions with fellow employees or supervisors.”

Language instruction can go beyond the basics. MPTC has worked with some companies to provide more professional English skills to employees they might think are in line for promotions. Huenink says an employee may have all the right skills to be a supervisor and have some basic English skills, but may need more to communicate effectively with other managers and employees.

“We sit down with the manufacturer and find out their needs and then come up with a plan to help them,” she says. “So much can be lost because of miscommunication, and if we can help someone improve his communication, it’s a win-win.”

The Cultural Piece

Training programs don’t just focus on language skills, but also cultural differences, Skelton says. “That’s why it was great seeing some McCain managers take the Hmong course. They learned some things about the culture that leads to greater cultural understanding,” he says.

One hurdle non-English speakers may need to cross is asking for help, Skelton says. An employee may nod his head that he understands what to do because in his culture it’s not OK to ask questions.

“There’s a big difference in relationships between managers and employees in other cultures,” says Marie Martin, director of FVTC’s Global Education Services. “If a manager asks if something can be done by a certain time, an employee may agree that it can be done because she was taught to never disagree with a higher-up. You almost have to follow it up by saying, ‘Are you sure? It’s OK to say more time is needed.’ ”

Martin adds that FVTC’s assistance extends beyond local workforces. Some local companies, that work a lot with businesses overseas such as in India seek assistance to better understand the cultural differences. “There are some phrases or things they need to better understand to make the work experience the best it can be,” she says.

The overall community benefits from the investment companies make to teach employees English, Skelton says.

“Sometimes companies aren’t sure about this (ELL classes), but I tell them they are investing not only in their employees, but also the community. You are providing employees with skills they can use in other parts of their lives, such as at the doctor or at their child’s school,” he says. “These employees also get better at their jobs and become better community members.”

Working with a non-English speaker

Many manufacturers may not have enough non-native English speakers on staff to make offering ELL courses practical. Marie Martin, director of FVTC’s Global Education Services, provides these pieces of advice when working with someone who doesn’t speak English proficiently:
» Speak slowly
» Don’t talk louder
» Enunciate
» Use ordinary words, such as “big” instead of “expansive”
» Cut out jargon, irony or sarcasm
» If possible, speak in person instead of on the phone so facial expressions can be seen.
» Avoid idioms and colloquialisms. “For example, don’t say ‘let’s wrap this up.’ Instead, say ‘let’s finish up,’” Martin says. “It seems like a small thing, but you need to think carefully about the words you’re using.”

Who speaks what

The most common requests for ELL training through Fox Valley Technical College and Moraine Park Technical College are for native Hmong and Spanish speakers. However, within the ELL courses offered on FVTC’s campus, students speak 60 different languages.